With a 100–97 win over France on Sunday, USA Basketball finished group stage play undefeated at 5–0, the only country in the 16-team field to advance to the knockout stage without a loss. But a perfect record obviously isn’t the same thing as a perfect showing, and coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has been beset by more than mere imperfections.
Here are three thoughts on USA’s victory:
Another close call
Team USA’s early round work—particularly its three most recent games, which were all competitive deep into the fourth quarter—displayed some real, exploitable flaws. So many of the characteristics one would like to see from a “Dream Team” have simply been missing through five games. USA hasn’t played cohesively or attentively. Its superior talent hasn’t been imposing or intimidating to respectable competition. And it hasn’t found a way to hide or work around its major positional weakness at point guard, especially late in games.
Pick any of USA’s three most recent games—a 10-point win over Australia, a three-point win over Serbia and a three-point win over France—and there are trouble spots galore. Too often, USA has conceded high-percentage shots by failing to get back in transition, by falling asleep on back cuts and by botching switching scenarios in the pick-and-roll. Too often, Kevin Durant is left standing in the corner late in games, as if waiting at the bus stop while someone else, often Kyrie Irving, jackhammers the ball into the wood. Too often, USA has needed the three-pointer to save it; Krzyzewski’s unbeaten streak, which dates back to 2004, was maintained in large part by nine Carmelo Anthony threes against Australia and seven Klay Thompson threes versus France.
A team this loaded, relative to its competition, shouldn’t need to dodge a bullet at the buzzer to avoid overtime against Serbia or endure a scare from a French team that was resting Tony Parker.
Entering Rio, SI.com labeled USA’s roster a “B, or B+ if you’re feeling generous”—one that was clearly inferior to the teams that won gold at 2008 Beijing and 2012 London. Despite early blowouts against China and Venezuela, the Rio group is indeed lagging noticeably behind its two predecessors when it comes to dominance.
Year and record
Margin of victory
5 by 20+
4 by 20+, 1 by 10 or less
2 by 20+, 3 by 10 or less
This seems to be more than a case of boredom. When USA has needed to turn it on, things haven’t always gone according to plan, as Serbia (29–22) and France (28–19) outscored the Americans in the fourth quarter of tight games. Against Australia, Thompson struggled to advance the ball and floundered on the court while narrowly avoiding a costly turnover. Against Serbia, Paul George missed the rim completely on a runner, forcing an errant and deep Durant three right as the shot clock was expiring. Against France, Anthony missed a tough contested isolation runner and his teammates allowed yet another clean look at a three in transition just seconds later. USA is too talented to be deemed “lucky” for escaping three times in a row, but it has certainly been fortunate.
Although USA will need to wait until opening round play wraps up on Monday to know its quarterfinal opponent, history (and basic logic) suggests that things will only get tougher once the do-or-die games commence. In 2008, the USA’s 32.2 average margin of victory in the opening round fell to 20.7 in the knockout stage, including an 11-point win in the gold medal game against Spain. In 2012, the 38.2 average margin of victory dropped to 22 in the knockout stage, with USA beating Spain by just seven in the final.
When the pressure mounted for those teams, Krzyzewski could turn to Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Anthony, among many others. Anthony has already hit many timely shots in Rio, but will need more help if USA’s recent games are any indication. That help must come from Durant, who has been obscenely efficient but also frustratingly quiet in Rio. Against the Serbians, the newest Warrior took just four shots. Against the French, he took just two shots in the game’s final 35 minutes. While it’s amazing that he can score 29 points on just 10 shots in those two games, the lack of productive involvement has been the real story. Late in games, Durant has been rotting on the wing like a washed up fish.
There were some promising offensive stretches against France: Durant came out of the gate quickly, hitting his first four shots, and Thompson broke out of an ugly slump to finish with 30 points, after managing just 11 total points in his first four games. When it locks in defensively and disrupts the passing lanes, USA has found success getting out in transition, including one pretty Irving to Durant alley-oop against France. But the continuity on offense and the consistency of effort and focus on defense need to much improve going forward.
USA (5–0) locked up Group A’s No. 1 seed, meaning it will play Group B’s No. 4 seed in the quarterfinal. Group B’s seeds will be determined by Sunday’s games: Argentina vs. Spain, Lithuania vs. Croatia and Brazil vs. Nigeria. Group B is so scrambled that it’s impossible to reasonably project the fourth seed at this point. That might not matter much, anyway, as USA will need to beat Group B’s No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 seeds on its path to gold if the higher seeds win in each knockout game.
For what it’s worth, Lithuania (five-point win) and Spain (seven-point win) gave USA its two toughest games in London, while Argentina dealt USA its last Olympic loss in 2004.
Krzyzewski alternated between starting George and Thompson in the opening round. While Thompson entered Rio as the starter, he shot just 4-of-26 (15.3%) in his first four games before breaking out against France.
Despite those struggles, Thompson should remain in the starting lineup, as USA needs the spacing he can bring when he is shooting to his usual form. Even on good days, the floor has been tight when USA enters the ball to DeMarcus Cousins in half-court situations. While the Kings center is struggling a bit to adapt to FIBA’s officiating when it comes to both fouls and traveling violations, he’s also finding himself trying to squeeze passes into lanes that aren’t completely there. In USA’s last two games, Cousins has committed nine turnovers, looking out-of-sync and frustrated at times. The best way to maximizing Cousins’s effectiveness inside is to surround him with shooters, and the Thompson/Durant/Anthony trio is the best USA can come up with at the 2-3-4.
If spacing and ball movement continue to be sore spots, Krzyzewski should consider turning to Draymond Green, who has been a bit of a forgotten man in Rio. Although Green hasn’t played especially well during his limited minutes in Rio or during the USA’s one-sided exhibition tour, he is a more versatile pick-and-roll defender, better shooter and better playmaker than Cousins. More shared minutes between Green and Thompson could also help take advantage of their familiarity with each other. USA could desperately use an infusion of Golden State fluidity right now.